Best practices for “Best practices”

by Nataliia Vasylyna | March 22, 2011 8:00 am

Last week I crossed the term “best practices” quite often. So I decided to share my thoughts on the term, and offer alternatives.

As a starting point, I did some research on what the understanding of “best practice” could actually be, since “best practices” are “best practices to some person”, and therefore subject of Michael Bolton’s Relative Rule. WikiPedia mentions the following (as of today):

Best practice is a coined expression or neologism used to designate a technique, method, process, activity, incentive, or reward which is regarded as more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc. when applied to a particular condition or circumstance. The idea is that with proper processes, checks, and testing, a desired outcome can be delivered with fewer problems and unforeseen complications. Best practices can also be defined as the most efficient (least amount of effort) and effective (best results) way of accomplishing a task, based on repeatable procedures that have proven themselves over time for large numbers of people.

A given best practice is only applicable to particular condition or circumstance and may have to be modified or adapted for similar circumstances. In addition, a “best” practice can evolve to become better as improvements are discovered.

As the term has become more popular, some organizations have begun using the term “best practices” to refer to what are in fact merely ‘rules’, causing a linguistic drift in which a new term such as “good ideas” is needed to refer to what would previously have been called “best practices.”

Wikipedia refers to another source for a definition. This one is from the Business Dictionary:

Methods and techniques that have consistently shown results superior than those achieved with other means, and which are used as benchmarks to strive for. There is, however, no practice that is best for everyone or in every situation, and no best practice remains best for very long as people keep on finding better ways of doing things.

Since it’s a neologism, let’s turn it around, and try to analyze what could be meant by it. As I’m currently reading Exploring Requirements – Quality before Design I decided to use some of the heuristics it offers in such situations.

Mary had a little lamb

The Mary had a little lamb heuristic deals with sentences analyzes different emphasizing of words. Let’s try it with the name first, then with the definition wikipedia as well as the one form the business dictionary offered.

Taking just theses two sentences already yields a whole bunch of ambiguity in the problem statement that best practices are trying to solve. This makes me suspicious. So, let’s face the business, and find out what the business dictionary has to offer to the calculation there.

That last point reveals a lot to me. Can you spot it? No? Taking out my Systems Thinking hat, I immediately see a positive feedback loop. The notion that something is best, may stop thinking about further improvements to the situation. At that point we stop to find better ways of doing things, thereby best practices will remain.

And this is my major objection when someone asks myself for a best practice in any field. Even if I achieve to deliver a practice with the surrounding context, that person might think that this is a best practice, and stop her or him from looking further for a better way with dealing their particular problem.

Over twitter we discussed last week that version control systems and continuous integration nowadays have become a best practice in software development. I am not so sure about this, having seen a team a team delivering something without an automatic build process in place at all twice over the past three years. But maybe deadline pressure just had become a best practice for these teams, too. I don’t know.


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